History by Non-Historians: First-Hand Accounts by Gold Rush Prospectors

Gold Miners in California, Currier & Ives, c. 1871

Gold Mining in California, Currier & Ives (c. 1871)

Writers of historical fiction look for first-hand accounts of the time to give their stories depth and verisimilitude. I wrote an earlier post about a book purportedly by a Gold Rush prospector, California: Four Months Among the Gold-Finders in California; Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold Districts, by J. Tyrwhitt Brooks, M.D. (1849). Although a riveting story of prospecting life, it was total fiction. Still, as a contemporaneous account of the era, it was useful in its way. But in my historical novels, I much preferred to rely on writings by actual prospectors, even if their stories were not as sensational.

Good first-hand stories by prospectors can be found on the website, “California Gold Rush: True Tales Of The Forty-niners.” Many of the anecdotes I used in Now I’m Found came from this site.

Johann Sutter’s own account of the discovery of gold at his mill is available in an article titled “The Discovery of Gold in California,” by Gen. John A. Sutter, on the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website. There are several accounts by Sutter on this website, which make fascinating reading.

Stories of women pioneers in California can be found in the article “The Foremothers Tell of Olden Times” on this same website. And for another female perspective, there is Jessie Benton Frémont’s book about her arrival in California, which I’ve also mentioned before, A Year of American Travel, by Jessie Benton Frémont (1878). Mrs. Frémont doesn’t describe prospecting, but she does describe storing bags of gold from her husband’s mine in their hotel room, which made me laugh.

Another good book I used that contains first-hand accounts from prospectors is A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, by William Benemann (Editor) (2003). Benemann has compiled excerpts from many early miners’ letters, and the book does an excellent job of depicting San Francisco in the early Gold Rush years.

Most of the letters in the resources I’ve described were written by ordinary people to their families in the East. They had no idea that someday their words would be interesting enough to include in a book or on websites (which they couldn’t even have imagined), nor that novelists would use them for flavor in books about the period. These letter writers were simply describing for their loved ones the experiences they’d had in a strange land, a land where they hoped to better provide for themselves and their families.

Sometimes I wonder whether anything I’ve written will be used for some future author’s research. I suppose the interesting thing about history is that ordinary people often don’t know it when they see it. Yet for all the publicity given to politicians and tycoons and celebrities, what really matters is the impact of their actions on the ordinary people. It is that impact that ultimately determines whether treaties and laws and business decisions, whether arts and entertainment—all the products of the famous—are successes or failures.

What history do you think we are making today?

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